Secrets of a Duke’s Daughter – Samantha Holt

Slide it in. Apply pressure. Move it back and forth. Why was this so hard? Cassandra eased out a shaky breath, eyed the cast iron safe with its unnecessary flourishes and curlicues, and pressed her lips together. She had picked locks hundreds of times. Nay, thousands. Admittedly it had been at her father’s house. With little chance of being caught. Or, if she had been caught, it was easily explained away. Oh, I lost the key to the attic room. How silly of me. How she would explain sneaking upstairs during the ball to slip into Mr. Harding’s private quarters and pick the lock of his safe, she did not know. Of course, if she could do it quicker, there would be no need for explanation. She should have known this would not go right.

First she had woken up with a blemish on her chin then a bow had fallen off her favorite slippers. If she had not vowed she would get into this safe today, she would have curled up in bed, thrown the blankets over her head and not arisen until tomorrow. After one long inhale, she tried again. Slide it in, apply pressure. Her hands trembled while she slid the pick back and forth. Perhaps she was applying too much pressure. Cassie dropped the picks, swiped clammy hands down her gown and grimaced. Mr. Harding needed better maids. Maybe no one would notice the dark streaks of grease in the crush of guests in the ballroom.

Unlikely, though. Everyone noticed her. She was the Duke of Daventry’s daughter after all. But she had no choice but to proceed. She had to succeed at this. She must. Her sisters would never let her help again if she did not. Her heart gave a judder against her ribcage. She froze and listened. A thud.

She was certain of it. Someone approaching perhaps? Someone about to discover her upon her hands and knees, covered in grime with lock picks in hand? She listened intently, her neck prickling. Strains of music drifted from downstairs, battling the thud of her heart in her ears. Adieu Mon Amis. Her favorite dance. But there were more important things at stake right now. Like getting her hands on a copy of the will that made Mr. Harding heir to this great house and more. A will that the late master’s sister had never seen. The will that had given away the house Jane held most dear—a house that had been promised to her.

Cassie shook her head to herself. It seemed unfathomable that Jane’s brother was even gone but she would not let that mar her judgement. If she had learned anything from her sister Eleanor, it was to look merely at the facts, and the facts were all there. Things were amiss and she had to agree with Jane—there was something odd about her brother’s death. No more thuds and footsteps or creaking floorboards could be heard so she retrieved her lock picks and started again. At least she had not been wrong to practice lock-picking all these years, but why oh why was it never this difficult before? She narrowed her gaze at the lock. If she stared it out long enough, surely it would give up its secrets? When it did not click and simply fall open, she sighed and tried again, pressing the pick into the hole and feeling for the little clunks that would indicate each tumbler had given way. One went. She forced her lips straight. There was still a way to go.

Finally, another slid up. She was close. Of course there was nothing to say the will would be here; but where else would an important man keep his most important documents? She wiggled the picks. Just a little— Cassie stilled. Her throat tightened. Had that been…? Footsteps. Oh pooh. Withdrawing her picks, she rose and shoved them into the concealed pocket in her skirts. Surely whoever it was would not be coming in here? Why would they? Goodness knew, she had no reason to be in Mr. Harding’s private quarters.

The footsteps neared and she remained frozen in the middle of the room. How would she explain her presence here? What if it was Mr. Harding himself? She could not arouse his suspicions. Or worse. Mess up her very first investigative case. The doorknob gave a slight squeak, and she darted behind the chaise then crouched low. As the door eased open and the tap of shoes on wooden floorboards sounded, she pressed herself down and under the gap between the chaise and the floor. She wrinkled her nose at the dust lingering in the narrow space, feeling a tickle at the back of her throat. What terrible housekeeping. She held her breath and tried not to imagine the spiders that could be keeping her company or how dreadful she would look once she got the chance to escape.

Slipping away from the ball would be of utmost importance. No one could know of her actions. First, however, she needed to see inside that safe. She had promised Jane she would not fail. A floorboard creaked nearby. Highly polished shoes moved their way past her vision before vanishing. She pressed her cheek to the cool floorboards and concentrated on breathing as slowly and silently as possible. Every breath seemed to rasp louder than a foghorn in her throat and she swore her heart made as much sound as a timpani drum. She felt it thud against her bodice as though it might escape its confines anytime soon and announce her presence to whoever was in the room. It had to be the Mr.

Harding. Who else would be here unless someone else had also decided to pick the safe? Unlikely. No one had believed Jane’s suspicions about her brother’s death. Cassie shook her head. After all, who would believe the word of a woman, most especially a grieving woman? She believed her though. It was the edict of her mother’s investigative society really. Never to doubt a woman’s word. As was far too common. But she lived by those words too. For all those who declared women false and hysterical, there were too many real stories, most of them gone unnoticed or ignored.

The shoes came past her again, the buckles flashing briefly in the lamplight. Perfect. As soon as Mr. Harding was gone, she would— The shoes returned to directly in front of her. She bit back a gasp. “Good evening, Cassie.” *** LUKE FASHIONED HIS face into some form of disapproval. Or at least he hoped that was how it looked. Seeing Cassie’s wide eyes and dust-laden coif made his lips twitch. Little Cassie Fallon had always been a handful and she hadn’t changed, even at three and twenty.

What a shame he had a history of rather liking handfuls. He swiftly cast his gaze away from two distinct handfuls that were rather too much on display given her prone posture on the floor. He uttered the words that had become somewhat of a mantra since Cassie had grown into a resplendent young woman. She’s Anton’s little sister. And far too good for a lowly viscount. Far too good for him that was, despite her insistence on getting into the sort of mischief one did not expect from a well brought up young lady. “What the devil are you doing?” Her throat bobbed as she wriggled her way out from the shadows. “Um…” She scowled and took his offered hand, revealing grubby white gloves. Dark smears that looked rather like oil streaked her elegant cream gown. The expensive silks, gold trim and glittering emeralds at her neck and wrist offered a bemusing contrast to the dirt and dust.

He plucked a cobweb from her fair curls and flicked it aside while she straightened her skirts. “Well?” he prompted. “I could ask the same of you.” Her chin lifted, emphasizing the sharp point of her heart-shaped face. “I saw you slip away.” “Oh.” Her gaze darted from side to side, wide blue eyes hunting the room for something. Most likely an excuse. Cassie was no liar, but she had a reputation—at least amongst family and close friends—for bending truths to ensure she got her own way. Some who did not know her would call her spoiled, but Cassie had about the strongest heart he’d ever seen in a privileged young lady.

There was seldom a soul she would not go to the ends of the earth to aid. Which was why he assumed her deceit and mysterious behavior had to do with some needy wretch who asked for her aid. What sort of aid she intended to find in Mr. Harding’s private chambers, he did not know. Nor did he especially want to—the less he become involved in Cassie’s affairs, the better. Especially when… He tightened his jaw. Anton’s little sister. Unfortunately, he had promised Anton he would keep a close eye on her whilst he enjoyed his far too long honeymoon touring Europe. Anton could have asked him to dance naked in Trafalgar square and he would have done it. After all, he owed the man everything… If only the naked dance had been on the cards.

It would have been a darned sight easier than keeping Cassie under control. Cassie had an absent-minded and indulgent father, so Luke had no support. “My earring,” she said abruptly. “I lost my earring.” He eyed the green jewels dangling from her ears. “You have both.” A slender hand darted to her ear and she smiled swiftly, letting loose a light laugh. “Oh so I do.” Her smile widened. “I could have sworn I felt it fall out.

” Lifting a brow, Luke folded his arms. It would be all too easy to let the wide smile work on him. He eased a breath through his nostrils and forced his attention away from her mouth. A tiny smattering of freckles ambled across her nose. He recalled how a few also scattered across the tops of her breasts and his traitorous gaze took the briefest of glances down. Anton’s little bloody sister. He should most certainly not have noticed there were freckles down there. Swallowing, he fixed his gaze on her face. “That still does not explain why you came up here.” “I needed some air.

” She went to move past him. “But I feel just fine now so I think—” He snatched her arm, his fingers curling easily around her slender limb. She glanced at where his gloves wrapped around hers and furrowed her brow. “Luke,” she hissed. “You cannot touch me so.” Oh he could. As a close family friend, he was trusted by the family. Few would think anything of him touching her in such an innocent fashion. As for them being alone, however…well that would be a different matter. He had his rakish reputation to consider—one that had been hard-earned over many years.

If they were spotted alone like this, hand on her wrist or not, he’d condemn her forever. “You could have taken some air in the garden,” he reminded her. “Or the drawing room. Or any other room for that matter. Birchlea House is hardly a hovel.” Cassie cocked her head. “What does it matter to you where I catch my breath?” “Anton told me to watch out for you. If you are getting into trouble…” “Does this look like trouble?” He released her arm and gestured to her long, elegant form. “Very much so.” “Oh pooh.

” She rubbed one of the marks on her gown. “It’s just a little dirt.” “If you go downstairs looking like that…” “Well, thank you, Luke. You do flatter me so.” He rolled his eyes. “You are beautiful as always. But you shall draw notice and the last thing either of us wants is Anton to be worrying for you whilst he should be enjoying his honeymoon.” Her shoulders dropped. “You are right.” She glanced around, her lips curving.

“I shall sneak out through the servants’quarters. I know there are stairs down to them at the end of this corridor.” “How on earth do you know that?” “You know, I have been here before, Luke.” He narrowed his gaze at her. Something was going on. Though Birchlea house had hosted many a ball during the recent Season, he could not claim to know the layout of the house any more than the next man. Or woman. One hardly went traipsing through the upstairs quarters unless one was up to some sort of illicit liaison. Not that he was immune to the draw of the occasional illicit liaison, but he preferred the privacy of the little townhouse he had set aside for such meetings. But if Cassie intended to meet a member of the opposite sex here, he had a duty to put a stop to it.

And not just because the thought of her in the arms of another man made his jaw tighten. “Cassie, what are you up to? Really?” “Not a thing.” She put a hand to the door. “And even if I was, it’s nothing to do with you, Luke. Anton is my brother. Not you. So you have no need to worry about me.” Before he could argue further, she darted out of the room and shut the door behind her. He closed his eyes briefly in a bid to rid himself of the mental image of her, tall with long limbs and pert breasts, and golden curls. He failed.

Chapter Two “Having another of your little tea parties, dear?” Cassie paused at the door to the parlor room. “Yes, Papa,” she lied. She never did understand how her mother kept her investigative activities from Papa, but he could be one of the most absentminded of men. Something, she supposed, she should be grateful for. Otherwise she would be married off by now to some bore with a title rather than starting to follow her one passion. He grinned. “I do enjoy it when all my daughters are gathered in one room. You all lead such busy lives.” “I know, Papa.” She released her hand from the door handle to give her father a kiss on his creased cheek.

His bushy white sideburn tickled her chin. “Are you going to the library?” She gestured to the book in his hand. “Oh yes. Must make some notes. Can you believe there are some beetles that I did not even know about?” She smiled. There was nary a day her father did not have his head in a book. “I truly cannot believe that.” “Well, have fun at your tea party.” “Thank you, Papa.” Cassie paused, gave her shoulders a little roll and straightened.

These were her sisters for goodness sakes. She saw them every day. Nothing of which to be frightened. But if they knew Luke had discovered her they might boot her from the group before she had even started. Years of begging to join and refining her skills would be for naught. Chastity near pounced on her when she entered the room, making Cassie expel a squeak of surprise. She pressed a hand to her chest. “What was that for?” Her eldest sister grinned. “You should be prepared for anything. Lesson two.

” Cassie wrinkled her nose. “But I haven’t even had lesson one.” “All in good time, Little One, all in good time.” Chastity flung herself down on the sofa next to Demeter and spread her arms wide across the back of the chair. “So how did it go?” Drawing in a breath, she glanced at her other siblings who were seated in a neat row and then her aunt. Sprawled across the chaise longue was Aunt Sarah, her gray hair rather like a wild bush spread about her. Curled up next to her, Simon the cat blinked nonchalantly into the distance. Simon had been so named for her aunt’s late-husband who Aunt Sarah insisted had returned as a cat to comfort her after his passing. Though not inclined to believe such fantasies, it was odd how the almost pure white cat had black fur under his nose, mimicking a moustache—rather looking like Uncle Simon and his black moustache and shock of white hair. “Well…” “Viscount Whitehurst caught you, did he not?” Cassie glanced at her half-sister Eleanor, her breath catching in her throat.

“How did you know that?” she blurted. Blast. Now she had given herself away. Ever since she had discovered her mother’s activities as a girl, she’d begged to be part of the group. Then Chastity had taken up the mantle as the leader after her passing and finally her other sisters had joined as previous members married or left. It seemed mightily unfair she would be forced to give it all up because of one frustratingly persistent viscount. “I saw him follow you,” Eleanor explained. “I should not be surprised. He always looks at you.” “Nonsense.

” If he looked at her it was only because he had some misguided notion she needed looking after. Nearly everyone she met thought that. Something about her age combined with being the duke’s youngest daughter and unmarried brought it out in people. Her ability to be a little on the accidentprone side did not help either she supposed. Of course, she should not be surprised Eleanor had noticed him follow her. Eleanor noticed everything. “Are you going to stand there forever?” demanded Aunt Sarah. “Take a seat next to me.” Cassie eyed the chaise, uncertain quite how she was meant to perch on the chaise next to her aunt’s sprawled legs and Simon so opted for the armchair by the fireplace. The parlor room had been decorated by her mother when Cassie had been younger and she still recalled marveling over the beautiful silk wallpaper, the shimmering gold curtains with its generous tassels that were so soft to the touch, and the plush furnishings in gold and green.

Whenever she set foot in this room, she could not help but feel her mother’s essence. If there was ever a time she needed it, it was now. Once she admitted she had failed to see the will, surely her sisters would banish her from the group. “So did you find it?” Eleanor asked. Cassie shouldn’t have been surprised at her sister’s bluntness. Eleanor was not known for being subtle or delicate. Many put that down to her parentage, however, Cassie knew better—Eleanor simply did not care for the delicacies of Society, especially given many members of the ton did not care for her. Only two years separated them, and they had grown up together after her father brought her over from Jamaica and claimed her as his own at the insistence of Cassie’s mother. “I did not,” Cassie admitted. “Blast,” murmured Chastity.

“I wasted all that time talking with Mr. Harding and now everyone will think I am desperate to marry him for no reason.” “Everyone thinks we are all desperate to marry anyway,” Demeter pointed out. “Four unmarried daughters? I’d wager every man who even w-went near us was noted.” Chastity held up a finger. “Speak for yourselves. I was married once and that was enough for me.” Aunt Sarah gave a lengthy sigh and rubbed Simon’s head vigorously. “We had a wonderful marriage, did we not?” she asked the cat. “I can only hope the same for you girls one day.

” Cassie shook her head. They were getting distracted by all this marriage talk. Not surprising, really. They were only saved from being pressed into engagements by their father’s lack of involvement in their lives. Cassie would not complain. If it had been up to their brother, they would all have accepted the first proposal that had come along, and she would have ended up on the arm of old Lord Sotheby with his strange gait and propensity for drinking too much. Frankly, she had plenty of time to marry and little inclination to rush into the matter. She was a duke’s daughter after all with a fine dowry. Eleanor nodded. “It is a fine job no one noticed Cassie slip out but I.

” She leaned forward. “I hope you are being cautious. Your mother did not want you part of this group until you were married.” “The same for all of us,” Chastity pointed out. “She would not believe I had given in already and let you all join.” Cassie shared a smile with Eleanor, recalling the days when they had sat outside this very room, ears pressed to the door, and tried to listen to what Mother and her friends were investigating next. Then they would beg and beg for details and beg further to join. The answer had always been the same. Husbands first. Then you may join.

She rubbed the end of her nose and grimaced. Sorry, Mama. “We are all getting distracted.” Demeter tweaked one of the flowers woven in and out of her raven hair. Today it was blue violets which meant something, but Cassie could not for the life of her recall what. Despite Demeter having few problems communicating after temporary deafness as a child, her sister had adopted using flowers to communicate her moods when she was little, and the habit had remained somehow. Eleanor gestured for Cassie to continue. “So what happened?” “I tried but…” She sighed. “I could not gain access to the safe.” “The chances of it being there were rather remote I suppose.

” Eleanor brushed down a stray strand of curly dark hair with a huff. “Did I ever tell you about the Prince of Prussia’s ball?” Aunt Sarah piped up as she straightened and gave a long, languid stretch. “I stood up with him twice. Everyone thought he intended to propose but—” “But we must concentrate, Aunt Sarah,” her sister continued. “If we are to find out why Jane was not given the house as her dowry or if her brother is even really dead, then we must not get distracted by princes.” “Who was talking about princes?” Aunt Sarah said. “I do not know if I ever told you—” Chastity pressed a hand to her lips to mask a giggle. They all adored Aunt Sarah but to say she had embraced eccentricity as she had aged was putting it mildly. Apparently, however, Aunt Sarah’s widowed status and her propensity for not giving a fig could be useful. Cassie rather looked forward to the day she could see her aunt put to work.

“Should I see if I can charm my way in, Little Sister?” Chastity suggested. The oldest of them all and blessed with ravishing dark looks, Chastity offered a sultry look. Despite her generous lips and dark eyes that always looked as though they were beckoning a man to bed, Chastity dressed, well, chastely with high fichus and gowns that did little justice to the generous figure beneath. It did not seem to matter, however. Their older sister never struggled in getting her own way. Eleanor looked to Cassie as she made a face. Why did everyone have to remind her she was the youngest all the time? “What do you think?” Eleanor asked. Cassie offered her sister a grateful smile. If anyone knew how much this opportunity to prove herself her mother’s daughter meant, it was Eleanor. She had joined their family at the age of eight and claimed her as his own at the behest of Cassie’s mother.

She was under no illusions that her parent’s marriage had been perfect or entirely faithful and Eleanor was evidence of that. But Cassie and Eleanor adored each other from the start, even if they did always seem to be on opposite sides of whatever the latest argument was. “I will try again. I have a better way of finding that will in mind.” “We must act fast,” Demeter said. “If Jane is correct and her brother isn’t really dead, he could be in danger.” Nodding, Cassie straightened her shoulders. “I will visit with her tomorrow, to ensure we have our facts entirely straight, but I shall not delay on my plans.” She set her sisters with a firm look. “I can do this, I promise.

” There was no chance she would mess this up again. All she ever wanted in life was to investigate mysteries and here they had a potentially missing earl and some sort of fraud. A far cry from the little delicate matters that started her mother’s investigative group in the first place. No, she would leave nothing to chance this time, and no annoying viscount would get in the way again.

.

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